Because of the Litany of the Saints

At the Great Vigil of Easter this year, I teared up during the Litany of the Saints. Standing in the choir loft, I could see the entire parish, many of whom are dear friends, as we all pleaded with our heavenly companions to pray for us. At this time of immense crisis in our beloved Church, never has this plea for heavenly help felt more powerful and necessary.

Some of my non-Catholic friends think we Catholics pray to the saints. We don’t. During the Litany of the Saints, we ask the saints in heaven to pray for us. The Litany of the Saints begins by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We also ask more than 50 saints, by name, to pray for us. Of course, these men and women are not the only saints. The Catholic Church has confirmed the existence of thousands of saints, men and women who have died and now are in union with God in heaven. Millions of other saints inhabit heaven, people whose lives were less notable. Faithful friends and family who have gone before us are also part of this great Communion of Saints. In great humility, we beg this cosmic communion to pray for us. We are a hurting Church. We need their prayers.

Throughout my life, in years and Masses past, I have merely endured this Litany of the Saints, which lasts for four or five minutes. To me, it was a monotonous listing of out-of-date names. Saints to me, I am sad to say, had no more meaning than two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.  Now, I understand that these flawed, vulnerable, and brave men and women are still alive, in the “cloud of witnesses.” They are part of the Communion of Saints  that exists here on earth, among the faithful souls on their way to heaven, and in heaven with those now united with God.

Thanks to my careful reading since Christmas, including the magnificent book  My Life with The Saints, which sparked Webster’s own conversion,  I now feel familiar with many of those names. These saints are my friends. The early church, Father James Martin, SJ, writes, focused more on the “companionship model, those who have gone ahead of us and are now cheering us on, brothers and sisters in the community of faith.” Here are the parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy, chanting the litany at their Great Vigil of Easter last year.

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This year in my New Jersey parish as the cantors sang each name at the Great Vigil, I could imagine the person, in all his or her quirky and holy individuality, behind the name. We Catholics need this Communion of Saints as never before. The credibility of our Church leaders is being questioned, and for good reason. I welcome this questioning. I share the disgust at the sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups. Only 1 percent of the Roman Catholic Church are priests and bishops, and a tiny proportion of them are the abusers and their enablers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs all of us to make right choices in accordance with reason and the divine law. This means we faithful must speak out for the good of the Church when the Church is in crisis. She is now.

The church scandals hit my family directly. We discovered years later, that a pedophilic priest served at the parish of my childhood, as did another priest who went on to move disturbed men from parish to parish. Reflecting on this now, my parents are deeply grateful that my brother never served as an altar boy or spent a moment alone with a priest or anyone on staff. Decades ago, one troubling incident my brother found out about from friends prompted my mom to call our pastor. He shrugged off the probability boys were being sexually abused by one of his subordinates. “We were so trusting,” my mom says. ” I should have called the police.”

As a result of this history, I was resistant to the idea of my own sons becoming altar servers, not because of the wonderful parish priest at our current parish, but because of that childhood experience that haunted, angered, and terrified me when my parents and the news media reported it years later. And I embrace rules that now prevent priests from spending tine alone with any parishioner—just as teachers are instructed not to spend time alone with one student. These rules both protect parishioners from sexual or other abuse and protect priests from the possibility of false allegations.

Trust, once broken, can be impossible to repair. Scores of Catholics of my generation and acquaintance have left the Church because of these scandals, either because they were abused as young boys or because they were repelled by learning of the abuse. But the truth remains that the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests are wonderful, trustworthy men, who are as pained and disheartened and disgusted as the laity about child sexual abuse and the subsequent denials and cover-ups by bishops.

And the truth is that in its Bible-based traditions and sacramental life, the Catholic Church holds the fullness of faith. Bad people never will destroy the Church’s truth. Consider what Doctor of the Church St. Thomas of Aquinas said nearly seven centuries ago about priests, who daily bring us a foretaste of heaven through the Eucharist. “The priest consecrates the sacraments not by his own power, but as the minister of Christ, in whose person he consecrates this sacrament. But from the fact of being wicked he does not cease to be Christ’s minister because our Lord has good and wicked ministers or servants.” And so, in this crisis, we Catholics in the pews need to speak out from the depths of our consciences about the sins of the Church leaders. And as part of the Communion of Saints, we need to ask even more fervently for the prayers of those who have gone before us, marked with the signs of our indestructible faith.

Because of the Thurifers

You might have noticed during the three days of the Easter Triduum, the fragrance of incense came and disappeared and then returned, hewing closely to the story of Our Lord’s Death and His Resurrection. We Roman Catholics have been using incense for more than a dozen centuries. We use incense as a symbol of our prayers rising to heaven. We imagine the fragrant scent rising and pleasing the nostrils of God. I love that our Church cares enough about sanctification that it has a special name for the people who incense a church: thurifers.

You see, we don’t just leave sticks of incense laying around the sanctuary; an altar server is charged with incensing the church with a thurbile (pictured below). This thurifer has such an important job that even the number of swings of the thurbile has special rules and meanings. Perhaps the world’s biggest, most famous thurible is the massive one found in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in northwest Spain.

On Holy Thursday, in Roman Catholic Churches across the globe, the incense is everywhere. It sanctifies the path of the Blessed Sacrament. It sanctifies the Gospel, whose words are sacred since they came from the mouth of Our Lord. It sanctifies the altar, where bread and wine become Jesus’s body, blood, soul and divinity. On Good Friday we commemorate the Lord’s Crucifixion and His death at Calvary, a hill outside ancient Jerusalem’s walls. The incense is gone. It does not return until the Great Vigil of Easter. That is when the thurifer incenses the Paschal Candle lit by the Easter fire. He also incenses the altar where, once again, consecration happens and we celebrate the most important Mass of our liturgical year.

Earlier this week, when we were in the choir loft rehearsing our pieces for the Easter Triduum liturgies, the altar servers were in the sanctuary below, preparing for Holy Thursday Mass. Our pastor was running them through their movements, including their procession down the aisle at the start of the Mass. I smiled to myself when I saw one of  the servers walking backward. B. is one of those “very good kids,” a son of devout parents who is unfailingly courteous and shows great respect to the church’s traditions. I thought perhaps he was letting off some steam by walking backwards. What I didn’t realize until Holy Thursday Mass was that B. was doing exactly what he was supposed to: he’s our parish thurifer. He sanctifies the path that lies before the Blessed Sacrament as the priest processes.

To incense is to symbolize our prayers rising to God. To incense is a sacred action. When that first whiff rose into the choir loft Thursday evening, I thought: No place else on earth do I smell that. I’m in my true home now.

I have cried to Thee, O Lord, hear me: hearken to my voice, when I cry to Thee. Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.

Because Death Catches Up to All of Us, Even Thomas Alva Edison

Before Thomas Alva Edison graced the world with his gifts, the only way to record a human being’s voice was in one’s memory. There was no way to preserve a moving image. Despite his intensive efforts to record his own life and the lives of others through his development of sound recordings and moving pictures, Edison met the same end we all will: he died. A visit to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, Thursday morning made me grateful for the man and also for my faith in a world beyond this one—a faith that Edison, for all of his brilliance, lacked.

To visit this recently reopened historic site, which I did with my family Thursday, is to be awed by the man and his gifts. Edison was born in 1847. His early life was not easy. Edison did not learn to talk until he was four. He left formal schooling after three months because a teacher found him “addled.” His mom home-schooled him after that. A bout of scarlet fever left him partially deaf.
His life was filled with material success. His friends, including Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, were wealthy and successful. His accomplishments include the invention of the incandescent light bulb, early motion pictures, and the phonograph. He won numerous accolades, including being elected the first honorary member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was awarded a  Congressional Gold Medal and a posthumous Grammy.
He amassed great fortune and fame during his 84 years. His laboratories in West Orange were the world’s first industrial research laboratory. He spent so many hours working there—up to 115 a week—that his wife put a bed in the laboratory library so he could rest.
It’s hard to discern exactly what Edison’s spiritual beliefs were. Some say he was an atheist, others that he was a deist, still others that he dabbled in the occcult. But it’s clear that his belief in the afterlife—or that our faith here on earth will affect our eternity—played no role in this rational man of science’s world view.
Death caught up to Edison, as it will the rest of us. The enormous clock in his three-story library stopped at the time of his death. The audio guide we listened to during the tour says it remains a mystery who exactly stopped the clock.
What struck me and Greg during our visit was Edison’s apparent obsession with preserving the memory of himself. He named dozens of companies and inventions after himself. Donald Trump, anyone? He had numerous photographs and films and recordings of himself. Oddest of all, when he lay dying, one of his sons held a test tube to his mouth to preserve his dying breath. That sealed test tube is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield, Michigan.  
I found it ironic and sad to learn that  Edison’s lifelong favorite poem was  Thomas Gray’s  “Elegy Written in a  Country Church-yard.”  His favorite stanza was the ninth: “The boast of heraldry,  the pomp of power. And all that beauty all that wealth e’er gave, Alike awaits th’inevitable hour: — The paths of glory leads but to the grave.”

Since my husband survived the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he and I no longer fear death. Our Catholicism has led us to know in our hearts that our lives in Christ will endure beyond our last breath on this earth.

Because of the Easter Triduum

The Easter Triduum comprises the holiest days in the Christian calendar. It begins tonight with Holy Thursday, when we commemorate the last meal our Lord ate with his disciples. It ends with Easter Sunday evening prayers as we rejoice in His Resurrection.

Until then, dear reader, let us all pray for one another and for our Church. Let us pray for folks on both sides of the Tiber. Let us pray for those who are joining the Church this season, including Webster’s beloved daughter in North Carolina, and for those who are contemplating conversion. Let us pray for Catholics whose faith is faltering or lost and let us pray for a world which often seems indifferent to the miracle of creation and resurrection. 

Two years ago, in an address in Saint Peter’s Basilica,  Benedict XIV said this about the Triduum, 

Dear brothers and sisters, during these special days let us guide our lives definitively toward a complete and decisive adherence to the designs of our celestial Father; let us renew our “yes” to the divine will as Jesus did with his sacrifice on the cross. The rites suggested for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the rich silence of prayer of Holy Saturday and the solemn Easter vigil provide us with the opportunity to deepen the feelings and the values of our Christian vocation unleashed by the Paschal mystery and to strengthen it by faithfully following Christ in all circumstances, just as he did, even to the point of giving up our own existence to him.

Because Christ is Everywhere—Even in the Shoe Department

I hate shopping at chain stores, I really do. The amount of merchandise and the lack of natural lighting overload my senses. So does the idea I could be doing something infinitely better with my time. But sometimes, I just can’t avoid shopping. Our boys needed new sneakers and Easter slacks and shirts so yesterday we had to head down a traffic-clogged state highway to buy them. But Christ finds a way of making Himself seen—even at Kohl’s.

My husband and I are raising our boys in New Jersey, the most densely populated state and the state with the greatest square footage of retail real estate per resident. I can think of no national retail chain that is not within a 10-minute drive of our home. We live in an oasis of calm amid strip malls and shopping centers; ours is a small town with sycamore-lined streets and a tidy commercial district we walk to for groceries, for church, and for after-dinner ice cream cones. Whenever one of us returns from an errand in town, the others ask: “Who did you see?” because inevitably, we run into friends and neighbors on our travels.

Yesterday, I left this idyll for Kohl’s. I have nothing in particular against the chain. I don’t like shopping at Macy’s or WalMart or Marshalls, either. The older I become, the stronger my faith and the emptier materialism,

a philosophical system which regards matter as the only reality in the world, which undertakes to explain every event in the universe as resulting from the conditions and activity of matter, and which thus denies the existence of God and the soul.

I was especially grumpy yesterday because before we left for shopping our 10-year-old had an unpleasant encounter with a neighborhood boy. The other fifth grader said some unkind things to our son about his older brother. Our 10-year-old returned home, most uncharacteristically, filled with angry tears. Someone had dissed his beloved older brother. Though I tried not to show it, I felt angry too. We don’t allow our sons to say unkind things about other people and we have trained them to pray—or at least try to pray—for their “enemies.”  They would face real consequences if we were to find out they had mouthed off to another kid about their brother or anything else. As we drove to Kohl’s, we were talking about this incident, my 13-year-old saying he truly felt confused by the criticism and why a kid he never has met would need to tear him down to feel good about himself. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “This is really baffling.”

At Kohl’s, after we spent time in the men’s section looking for pants for my teen and the boys’ section to find slacks for the 10-year-old, I felt done. Our cart was flowing with socks and slacks and shirts. We went over to the shoe department. I sat on a bench and let the boys find their own shoes. I silently stewed, my mind filled with angry thoughts. I was thinking about how so many parents I know find excuses for their children’s obnoxious behavior instead of correcting their children. I don’t know the offending boy’s parents, but even if I did and spoke with them, would they even care? What am I supposed to tell my boys? To talk back to someone who is rude? To let it go and recognize some people are just mean? To tell people about their hurt and try to reconcile with them?

I was feeling kind of hopeless about the whole thing. I sat on a bench, my arms dangling on the loaded-up shopping cart under florescent lights while my sons shopped. Do you ever have that feeling of being a stranger to the world, the sense of: what am I doing here?

All of a sudden, above the noise of my thoughts, I became aware that our teen was helping his little brother find the Converse sneakers he wanted. He had left the shoe department to find a clerk and ask for help and he was returning with suggestions on where to find the sneakers. Then, right in front of me, the most beautiful tableau appeared: a little boy, no older than three, was sitting on a bench pretending to try on shoes. His mother came over to him, knelt in front of him, and kissed him tenderly. I pulled out my cell phone to take a picture, but I was too late. The tableau vanished. Then, I looked  to my right and and saw my sons, standing by a shoe kiosk, the older one guiding the little one to find his sneakers. So I took the photo above.

And then I thought: I’ve been getting this all wrong. Christ is not just in the comfortable, familiar places, like my hometown and among my neighbors. He is here, too, amid the roads clogged with traffic, the miles of strip shopping malls and clearance racks. God knows we have to live in a material world. He knows we need to clothe and care for our children. Christ has found a way to show Himself to me, in this present moment, in the shoe department of the East Brunswick Kohl’s.

Because of the Franciscan Knots on My Rosary

This morning I made my first Franciscan knot. I am inordinately proud of this knot of mine. I only was able to make this knot because Marge, who has been making these knots for—pardon the pun—decades, guided my hands with her hands, which are knotted with arthritis. Marge, a daily communicant, retired nurse, and mother of five, offered to teach the teens in our youth group how to make rosaries. Loading plastic beads on a piece of nylon rope is not hard. Knowing how to make the knots between them is key. I learned this morning if you want to make a rosary out of cord, you have to know how to make the knot.

The Franciscan knots separate the Hail Mary beads and everything else on a rosary, whether it’s the Our Father beads or the Crucifix or the Mary medal. Marge let us cheat and use clear plastic spacers everywhere except before the Crucifix and the Virgin Mary medallion.

To make the Franciscan knot, we used a grooved cord tool, through which we threaded the cord to form the knots. We did a triple overhand with the cord, which represents each of the friars’ Gospel vows. Since the middle ages, Franciscan friars have worn three of these knots on their cords. They stand for poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Poor Clares, who are cloistered Franciscan nuns, wear four knots, the fourth symbolizing their vow of enclosure. Third Order of Secular Franciscans wear five knots for the five wounds of Christ.

The  teens spent nearly an hour working on  their practice knots, and then chattered away and ate bagels. But I was determined to make a whole rosary. As I tried and tried to make that knot, I started reflecting on knots. The rosary’s origins are the rope cords knotted by desert monks so they could track their daily recitations of the psalms. Now, our rosaries have knots between the smooth prayer beads. What could this tell me?  A knot is rough. A bead is smooth. A knot is a difficult place, a place we want to leave. A  prayer bead takes us to a soothing place. But when we pray the rosary, we need the knots to hold the beads.

My first Franciscan knot became part of my first rosary. Marge took a break in teaching us rosary making to drive her 88-year-old husband to a physical therapy appointment. She returned to quickly tie the other three knots—perfect ones—for me because we were running out of time. She invited us to her house to practice knot making. She offered to meet with the teens again and keep working on mission rosaries. I left the finished rosary on the table where Marge had gathered her supplies. We were supposed to be sending the rosaries to the missions. Marge told me to take my rosary home. I think she realized I don’t own a rosary. She told me to keep it in my pocket, so that I could show other parishioners we could make rosaries for missions. In her kindness, perhaps she was looking at me as a mission, too.

To some, my plastic rosary might look simple or tacky. When I pull my rosary out of my pocket, however, I think about all the care that goes into handmade rosaries, no matter their appearance. I think of Marge and her hands and her missions. I feel the cord tying her to the Desert Fathers, who thousands of years ago, were tying their knots.

Because of the Living Stations of the Cross

I have a confession to make: the Stations of the Cross used to creep me out. Only in the past year have I begun to understand their beauty and significance. And that is thanks to the Living Stations of the Cross presented by the teens of the  St. Rose of Lima high school youth group in Freehold, New Jersey.

When I was a child, I didn’t want any part of Palm Sunday or Holy Week, or especially Stations of the Cross. That is because to me they were all about this wonderful person, the Son of God, who was murdered most gruesomely. In contrast, I loved Christmas. My dad sang at Christmas Masses and our family of six often would attend Midnight Masses. What a treat to stay up so late and celebrate Christmas, a holiday I understood was about love, about a baby born in inauspicious and unusual circumstances who turns out to be the Savior of the World. It made me feel warm inside.

As for Holy Week, our parents did not take us to Holy Thursday or Good Friday masses. Until I was a mom myself, I never attended Stations of the Cross. And so they remained to me scary images I avoided looking at on the side walls of Catholic churches.

Throughout  my life, the lead-up to Easter was this icky thing, hidden from my view and understanding. And the one Easter Mass I remember attending as a child (though our parents took us every Easter) was when I was eight or so. We were late to Mass and could not find a parking spot at our parish. So my dad drove us over to a church in a neighboring town. I remember the priest intoning during his homily, “You are one Easter closer to your death.” I imagine now that the priest must have said lots of other things—about the Resurrection and the possibility of our own salvation—but that was all I heard. His words terrified me for years.

Because of my spiritual and emotional immaturity, not for nearly four more decades could I begin to fully confront Christ’s suffering, and through that, mature in my faith. Last Lent, a friend and fellow parishioner, Dan Finaldi, invited the Saint Rose of Lima high school youth group in Freehold, one county over, to present Living Stations of the Cross at our parish. Dan is a high school art teacher in Freehold and learned about the project from some of his students.

I didn’t even want to go. But as part of their CCD requirements, our sons had to attend a Stations of the Cross during Lent. This felt like a palatable way to do it. After all, if a bunch of Jersey teens could spend days living the Stations in rehearsal, surely this middle-aged woman would be able to emotionally handle watching a presentation of the Stations. And so I went.

I didn’t even know what “Living Stations” meant. Were the teens going to walk around the church, stop at each station, and reenact it by flashlight? No. Teen actors used the front of our church to create tableaux, station by station. From the ambo, other teens interspersed descriptions of each scene with prayerful meditations on how that event on the road to Calvary related to their own faith journey. From the choir loft, teen musicians, including an electric guitarist and a drummer, sang contemporary hymns and popular tunes that related directly to the meditations.

This approach was a big help to me. At long last, I understood that we cannot fully embrace the message of Christianity unless we embrace Christ’s suffering for us. Stations, as our 10-year-old put it, “is about the road to His death, which, in the end, saves us all.” Last night he came with me and my friend Andy to Living Stations. This time, I meditated on the depth of suffering Christ’s mother endured, and about the kindness of strangers Christ encountered on his journey home. “We cannot take your place,” the teens read. “But help us find our place in the world.”

At the Sixth Station,  in which Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,  a lone teen sang Jewel’s “Hands.”  I thank God for the high school youth group at Saint Rose of Lima for helping me grow up.

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God Takes Care of Little Ones with Guardian Angels

Over the past day, we’ve had a crisis in our home, a crisis of epic dimensions with which anyone with a school-aged child is familiar: our son lost his homework.

Now, this wasn’t just any piece of homework. It was a book project in 12 sections. Our 10-year-old read a biography of Hank Aaron, not a kids’ book, but  a book for adults that he found on my husband Greg’s bookshelves.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve guided him step by step through the project, setting up deadlines for this bear of an assignment to make sure he met today’s deadline. And last night, as he was going to put the finishing touches on the project, he discovered he’d lost it. I knew, I just knew, there had to be a life lesson in this one. I told him so. But it took me a while to figure out what it was.

After our son discovered the project was missing from his school folder, all four of us searched our entire home for it without success. He was apopleptic. He was so upset with himself he could not finish the remaining pieces of the project, including putting a face on his bust of Hank Aaron, and copying over a small thesaurus he had written. He was so angry he could not study for today’s history test. Off to bed he went, in tears and with our prayers following him up the stairs. Before Greg went to bed, he went into our son’s room, gave him a big hug and told him how proud we are he works so hard in school. I prayed myself to sleep.

When I awoke at 6:30 this morning, our son was already awake and downstairs, putting the face on his Hank Aaron bust. (pictured above). He called upstairs and asked me to come downstairs as soon as I could to help him redo the thesaurus. When he finished, he asked me to prep him for the history test.

As I drove our son to school I told him I understood his frustration. I had lost important work myself. I told him  rewriting the project would be easier than writing it the first  time. “There is a life lesson in this,” I told him. “What is it?’ he asked. I was going to respond that perhaps next time he would figure out a way to keep track of his work better. But then I thought, making mistakes is an inevitable part of living. Surely that cannot be the life lesson.

As I pulled up to the school, I realized what I needed to say. “The life lesson is that God will take care of you, no matter what happens.” “Okay,” he said, nodding.

I watched our son walking through the school yard, his massive backpack hanging from his small frame. I imagined an angel walking beside him. I remembered how I learned as a child that each of us has a guardian angel.. I used to pray to mine before I went to sleep each night. As our catechism teaches: “From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their (the angels) watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united to God.”

I’ve never told our son about his angel, or how to pray to him. Angel of God, my guardian dear, To whom God’s love commits me here, Ever this day, be at my side, To light and guard, Rule and guide. Amen.

I could tell you whether our son found the project at school in his desk or locker or if I found it under a sofa at home. I could tell you whether the due date he cited was the actual one, or whether the project was already overdue or not due until next week. But none of that would be the point. I have come to believe that our son lost his project so that God could introduce him to His angels.